Early History of Bill Thomas 427 Big-Block Conversions for Nickey Chevrolet Lives in This 1967 Camaro
History is truly the discipline of keeping an accurate record of events and stories. Muscle car people are often history buffs. Some revel in racing history, some are fascinated with factory assembly processes, some obsess over owner history, and some delight in digging up new information. Dean Klein is the quintessential history buff/muscle car aficionado. His historical penchant often drives him to uncover lesser-known stories of 1960s and 1970s muscle cars. Dean is making sure that no one forgets the Bill Thomas Race Cars story.
In the early 1960s, Bill Thomas rose to prominence via his involvement as a research and development specialist with General Motors’ racing program. He designed and built the Cheetah as GM’s response to the Shelby Cobra. He worked with Chevrolet in the development of various powertrain and chassis combinations for Stock and Super Stock racers. He was also contracted by Chevrolet in late 1966 to perform big-block conversions on the West Coast for the newly introduced 1967 Chevrolet Camaro. About that same time, Nickey also contracted Dick Harrell to perform big-block conversions in the Midwest.
Dean owns one of the California-based Bill Thomas Race Cars conversions, this Butternut Yellow 1967 Camaro. In December 1966, a gentleman in California purchased the car, originally an SS350, new for his girlfriend. The relationship ended sometime in mid-1967, and he got the car back. He wasn’t satisfied with the performance of the small-block engine, so Nickey Chevrolet, then “the largest performance parts dealer in the country,” says Dean, commissioned Bill Thomas Race Cars to convert the car to Nickey big-block status.
Dean has the original Bill Thomas Race Cars conversion paperwork for the Camaro, dated October 19, 1967. While most of the Bill Thomas conversions used 427-inch Corvette engines, this car received a “cheater” 427 engine that came in at 467 ci. The car was also equipped with a 12-bolt Posi rear with 3.07 gears. Best guess is that the owner was interested in high-speed highway cruising instead of quick acceleration. A “Bill Thomas Traction Kit” (a set of traction bars) was also installed, as was a set of “special mufflers,” a set of Rader wheels, and a set of “Perrelli” (sic) tires.
The original Camaro SS350 cost about $ 2,800 new in December 1966. The Nickey-Thomas big-block conversion cost $ 4,951.36. That puts the total cost of the car close to $ 7,750. In 1967 dollars, that was easily $ 2,000 more than the price of a nicely equipped 1967 427/435hp Corvette.
Those wheels are a significant piece of the Nickey-Thomas legacy. Manufactured by Rader Wheels, they were advertised in 1967 as the Nickey/Bill Thomas Camaro Wheel, available in 14- and 15-inch sizes at $ 120 for a set of four. “I have only seen three sets of original Nickey/Rader wheels ever,” says Dean. “I was able to buy two sets. I paid $ 1,300 for one set that needed to be restored, and $ 2,800 for the set that is now on the car, not including center caps.” Quick math shows he spent more than $ 4,000 just for the proper wheels for this Camaro. That’s dedication.
Bill Thomas Race Cars would end up doing just a small number of 1967 Camaro big-block conversions under the arrangement with Nickey. The cost of shipping cars from California to Chicago made the partnership cost-prohibitive. Nickey then turned to Dick Harrell to perform the big-block conversions, and by the end of 1967, Bill Thomas Race Cars was no longer connected to Nickey Chevrolet.
Dean came to own the Camaro thanks to Bill Thomas himself. He and Bill started working together in the 1990s when Dean’s company, Little Detroit Collectibles, was planning to make die-cast versions of the Nickey/Bill Thomas Camaros.
“While doing that research I sat down with Bill Thomas on a number of occasions, and he kept taking about this yellow car,” Dean recalls. “A couple of years later I was following up with Bill, and he told me he had been called by the owner of that yellow car. I asked him to find out whatever happened to it, and it turned out that owner still had it. So Bill got it for me.”
When Dean took possession of the Camaro in 2004, “it was in pieces,” he says. And not just disassembled—the original owner had started to turn it into a full-blown race car, cutting some of it up in the process. During the restoration, “anything that wasn’t original on the car I put repo stuff on there,” says Dean. “I intentionally did that so people could recognize what had been changed.”
The original Bill Thomas big-block was gone, but thanks to his relationship with Bill, Dean had Bill’s son, Bill III, build a date-code-correct 427 to the original 1967 specs. It even has a Weiand intake manifold “out of Bill Thomas’ stash,” says Dean.
Today only three examples of the Nickey-Thomas conversions are known to exist. And since Dean’s car was converted in October 1967, it is possibly the last big-block conversion completed at Bill Thomas’ Anaheim shop while in partnership with Nickey.
At a Glance
1967 Nickey-Thomas Camaro
Owned by: Dean Klein, Minneapolis, MN
Restored by: Owner
Engine: 427ci L72 V-8
Transmission: Muncie M22 Rock Crusher 4-speed manual
Rearend: 12-bolt with 3.07 gears and Positraction
Interior: Black vinyl bucket seat
Wheels: 14×6 Nickey/Bill Thomas Camaro Wheels (by Rader Wheels)
Tires: D70-14 Firestone Wide Oval Super Sport front, F70-14 Pos-A-Traction cheater slicks rear
Special parts: Bill Thomas Race Cars headers, Hush Thrush transverse muffler, S-W Green Line 8,000-rpm tachometer and gauges, Bill Thomas Traction Kit
Bill Thomas and Dean Klein Connection
This Camaro is just one of several Bill Thomas cars that Dean Klein has owned. One of them, likely the only 1969 L78 Nova to get the Thomas touch, was featured in the Apr. 2012 issue of Muscle Car Review (“One and Only”).
Klein and Thomas also collaborated on a very special Camaro back in 2002, when Chevrolet announced it was going to suspend production of its venerable ponycar.
“I said to Bill, ‘You were the first guy to get his hands on a 1967 Camaro to do conversions. We ought to do some of the last ones,’ Dean recalls. “We decided to take the 35th Anniversary Camaro and turn the LT1s into 427 cars.”
Thomas had publically retired from high-performance work with Chevrolet in the 1970s, and yet somehow he was able to get his hands on not one, but two of the 427 race motors built to power C5-R Corvettes at Le Mans. Bill Thomas III did the fabrication work required to fit that motor in the Camaro SS—“everything was custom on that car,” Dean recalls—and once they got the motor dialed in, it recorded 1,240 hp. To the rear wheels. “And remember, this was in 2002, when there was no such thing as 1,000hp street cars.”
Dean took the finished car to the York US30/Muscle Car Madness show, where he happened to cross paths with Bill Jenkins. In conversation, the Grump admitted he and Thomas had been involved with the race motor’s development.
Search for “1000 hp Camaro” on YouTube and you can see the car on the chassis dyno at the 2005 Car Craft Summer Nationals. “The tach lead came off on the first pass,” Dean says. “The clutch was hot for the second pass and did 1,000 horses to the rear wheels. Earlier in the day it went 1,140.” —Drew Hardin